The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo
The extra-ordinary true story of the two man-eating lions of Tsavo was dramatised by the Paramount Pictures film The Ghost and the Darkness.
The Facts Behind the Film
In the advertisements for the film the claim was made: "Only the most incredible parts of the story are true." A careful comparison of the 1996 film with the original 1907 book, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo”, upon which the film is based makes that clear. It is a fact that two powerful 200 kg lions (one with a blonde mane, the other with a black mane) terrorised the railway construction workers at Tsavo in Kenya throughout 1898.
The Lions who Stopped a Railway
They indeed were the lions who stopped a railway - bringing all construction work to a standstill for over four months. They defied all attempts to trap and kill them. They attacked by night and day. They came into people's tents and even railway carriages and carried off their victims, leaping over 8 foot bomas (fences made of thorn bushes). The lions outwitted some of the finest hunters and marksmen the British could field in Kenya.
The Lions Who Out-Witted the Hunters
One lion did indeed walk straight into the elaborately set up railway boxcar trap. The door came down behind him and the 3 riflemen positioned as bait safely behind bars on the other end of the boxcar opened fire. Yet the lion evaded the 12 rounds fired at point blank range and smashed through the door, escaping unharmed! Patterson's first clear shot of one of the lions did misfire. He anathematised the day that he accepted a borrowed rifle and took an unproven weapon into the field! These and many other aspects of the incredible story are true and are documented in Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson's book “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” published in 1907.
Fiction Undermines the Film
However, much of the Paramount film is pure Hollywood invention. There were only two man-eating lions and it took 4 months of stalking them before Patterson even saw one. The first "lucky shot" on the first night of another man-eating lion - never happened.
The Remington Character Did Not Exist
There was actually no American game hunter involved at all. The Remington character played by Michael Douglas was fictitious. No doubt Hollywood scriptwriters believed they must insert an American character as central to any plot - even such an obvious misfit as the anachronistic Remington who might fit in the 1990's in Los Angeles but certainly not the 1890's in Africa. The British engineer Patterson actually shot both of the man-eaters.
The headman, Samuel, who plays such a key part in the film was another Hollywood invention. The only headman in the book had a far less honourable role.
Euthanasia Led to the Reign of Terror
More seriously the reason for the unprecedented killing spree of these lions is just ignored in the film. The horrible fact is that the local tribes had the practise of laying out their elderly, sick and infirmed people by the riverside to be eaten by crocodiles, or other wild animals. The lions apparently developed a taste for human flesh and a contempt for these frail human beings who couldn't even run very fast. Euthanasia led to the reign of terror by these man-eaters.
Depicting the Christian Hero as a Secular Humanist
For some reason in the film, John Patterson is depicted as a secular humanist who claims that he is "beyond conversion." In fact Col. Patterson was a Bible believing Christian who was a faithful member of the Church of England. In the First World War, Patterson founded the first Jewish Palestine Regiment since the Maccabees. He led the Zion Regiment in battle against the Turks at Gallipoli and in Palestine. For the rest of his life, from 1915 to 1947 Patterson dedicated his life to seeing their homeland, Israel, restored to the Jewish people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describes Colonel Patterson as “the Godfather of the Israeli Army,” Patterson also wrote: “With the Zionists at Gallipoli.” (1916) and “With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign.” (1922)
Why do so many scriptwriters in Hollywood find the need to distort history and delete any positive references to Christianity? Instead of accepting Patterson's Christian Faith and the role that it played in his courageous lone struggle to protect his workers, The Ghost and the Darkness invents another weak character who is made out to be a "Bible thumper" - yet who is killed by a lion. That too is fiction. In fact no Christian was killed by these lions of Tsavo.
Inserting an Anachronistic Devilish Character as Hero
A thoroughly pagan fictional American character, Remington, who declares "I am the devil!" has centre stage in this film version. Why change history when the real story is even more incredible and exciting than Hollywood's predictable cliché’s?
Ridiculous Irresponsible Wildfire Inserted
Obviously Patterson never started a veld fire and never fired aimlessly into the air to bring the lion into the open! That never happened and it would have been counterproductive.
Most Spectacular Scenes and Exciting Events were Left Out
Actually there were many great scenes in the book which would have made the film far more exciting and effective. Like the time when so many people scrambled up a tree to escape the lions that the whole tree fell over, spilling the people directly towards the lion! There were two attempts on Patterson's life by murderous mobs of his workers - which he only escaped by the skin of his teeth. On another occasion the trolley Patterson was travelling in, raced downhill towards the river - without a working brake. The trolley jumped the rails, he flew through the air, just missing a projecting beam and crashed into a sand bank by the side of the river with the trolley landing next to him.
Excruciating Experiences Censored Out of the Film
In the book there is also an excruciating description of a time when three men sleeping in a railway carriage were woken up by a lion pushing open the sliding door and pinning down one man, mauling another. The third man on the top bunk ran over the head and back of the lion to escape, but the local workers were holding the door shut to keep the lion inside. The poor trapped man had great difficulty wrenching the door open to escape. The lion then leapt out, crashing through one of the windows carrying his victim with him, while the man who had been pinned down dived through another window and escaped! That true account would have made a far more harrowing film sequence than the fictitious and highly irresponsible veld fire scene.
Truth is Stranger than Fiction
So, what is actually behind Hollywood's "This is a true story" (Sure, but only the facts have been changed - as well as some fictitious characters thrown in and history distorted) films? They cannot say they are "improving upon the original story" because, as with so many of their films, the book is actually far better. The truth is not only stranger than fiction - it is also often more visually impressive as well.
Missing the Main Message
The whole reason for the horrifying man-eaters of Tsavo was man's inhumanity to man - the callous practise of forced euthanasia - condemning the elderly and infirmed to be killed. The breaking of God's commands to honour the aged, to care for the sick and not to commit murder have terrible consequences. "A man reaps what he sows." (Galatians 6:7). His Christian Faith inspired Patterson's extraordinary courage and persistence.
The bias of all too many scriptwriters and film producers against Christianity is leading to a dangerous distortion of reality in the minds of those many people for whom Hollywood is their primary source of knowledge about the past.
We need to re-discover the importance and enjoyment of reading some of the great classics and history books - about what really happened. A correct understanding of the past is an indispensable aid in making a better future.
Dr. Peter Hammond
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa